no more bees … no more man

In 2007 beekeepers in the US reported that 30 per cent of their worker bees were disappearing from the hives. When they compared notes, France and Ireland were having the same problem. Soon the reports were coming from all over the world.

In 2007 beekeepers in the US reported that 30 per cent of their worker bees were disappearing from the hives. When they compared notes, France and Ireland were having the same problem. Soon the reports were coming from all over the world. In some cases the losses were as high as 50 per cent.

It was a hard economic hit for the industry, and a shock for food suppliers everywhere. Without the honey bees to pollinate them, hundreds of crops would simply die off. The effect on the world food supply would be catastrophic. Goodbye apples, goodbye alfalfa. So long squash, it’s been good to know you. Adios coffee, coriander, and clover. Cukes, it’s been a slice.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of shrinking diet choices. It’s curtains. Albert Einstein summed it up quite nicely when he said, “If the bees disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

In a story headlined “Finally a suspect in bee decline,” Tuesday’s Toronto Star reported that Ernesto Guzman, an entomological researcher at the University of Guelph, has solved the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder. Canadian bees make good study subjects because they’re kept indoors all winter, so they don’t wander off to die.

By examining the bodies, Guzman and his colleagues have established the cause of CCD, at least in Ontario. It turns out the killer is the varroa mite, a common parasite, and nothing new to beekeepers, who’ve been controlling it with pesticides for decades. What appears to be causing the crash in the bee population worldwide is that the mites have built up a resistance to the pesticides.

While the Guelph study is of the highest importance, it’s not quite accurate to say the varroa mites are “finally a suspect.” Some observers have suspected them all along. In February 2008, the Cape Breton Organic Beekeepers Association announced an action plan to keep the varroa mite off the island, because it was “a suspect in the epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder.”

Organic beekeepers report little or no increase in die-off in their hives since the outbreak of CCD. They tend to explain this by what they don’t do, from dosing the hives with pesticides to control mites, to “super-sizing” the bees, to ranging them on GMO crops.

Industrial bees are trucked around the country to pollinate factory farms where industrial farming methods have driven out the natural pollinators. They are raised in artificial hives with oversized honeycombs, so they grow up to twice the size of bees raised in natural hives. This makes for a bigger, more productive bee that takes longer to mature, giving mites longer to grow.

Stressed from travel, industrial worker bees live in hives that are regularly dosed with pesticides, they forage all day in pesticide-drenched fields of GMO crops, some of which have been genetically engineered to kill insects. The question isn’t why 30 per cent of them die off, it’s how the rest survive.

What’s ailing the bees is what’s ailing the planet. The human population is out of control, and we try to answer our growing needs by putting unsustainable demands on the environment. When the Earth responds with plagues of locusts, rather than pause to consider what we’re doing wrong, we make a potion to slay the locusts, and forge ahead.

No doubt, labs are already at work to redesign the pesticides to overcome the varroa mites’ resistance. If they are successful, they might just save the bees, and all of us, from extinction – until the mites develop a resistance to the new stuff, and then it’s back to the lab. Maybe this could go on forever.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a house of cards.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.